The ebb and flow of stock markets present opportunities to profit if an investor understands these cycles. Since 1900 we have had 27 bull markets with corresponding bear markets to make things interesting. Presently, we are experiencing the 6th longest and the 5th weakest stock market rally as measured by the Dow.
While this is interesting, it would be more helpful if we could better understand these cycles in the market. Well, the stock market does tend to move in cycles, short term (also called cyclical), and long term (also called secular). Secular markets typically can last between 10 to 20 years, while cyclical markets usually last between 2 – 3 years on average. Think of a secular market as the primary long term trend, while a cyclical market is simply a shorter term cycle within the primary long term secular market.
As investors and traders, we need to understand where we are within these market cycles, so we can be on the right side of the trend to enhance our success. For example, the market was in a secular bull market from 1982 – 2000, experiencing a strong primary uptrend where the Dow Jones Industrial Average increased over 10 fold from about a low of 800 to over 10,000. Of course, there were short term bear markets such as in 1987, however, the easy money was made on the long side as the primary trend was up.
However, here’s where the danger lies: The majority of investors today have only experienced a secular bull market, such as the one from 1982 – 2000. Most of us have not experienced a long term secular bear market where the primary trend is mostly sideways to slightly down. The last secular bear market lasted 16 years from 1966 to 1982. Just to give you some perspective, the Dow Jones hit a high near 1000 in 1966, and hit a low in the 800s during 1982. In other words, the Dow essentially was flat for 16 years. During this time, the ‘easy money’ was not made on the long or short side, but by being being a good stock picker identifying undervalued opportunities, special situation stocks, and sectors that are temporarily strong. Understanding whether we are in a cyclical bull or bear market greatly enhances our chances for success.
The problem is that the secular bull market that began in 1982 ended in 2000. Therefore, while the stock brokers advice to hold for the long term was good advice for a secular bull market, it is totally the wrong strategy for a new secular bear market. The market entered into a new secular bear market in 2000, and as history shows, this new secular bear market will probably last at least until 2010 or longer. The market rally from early 2003 until now is simply a cyclical bull market within the new long term secular bear market. Holding for the long term will not work in this new secular bear market.